Rural areas cash in on trail running

by Shohei Seki

Kyodo

Trail running is attracting increasing attention as a means of revitalizing towns and villages suffering from depopulation.

The OSJ Okukuji Trail 50K footrace, which covers mountain paths around 654-meter Mount Nantai on the border between Daigo and Hitachiota in Ibaraki Prefecture, attracts around 600 participants every year.

Debuting in 2009, the race has caught on with trail runners not only because of its tough course dotted with steep ascents and descents, but also because of the hospitality of its residents, who host a welcoming party on the eve of each race filled with local dishes, such as fresh trout broiled with salt.

During the race, competitors are handed pickles and pressed flowers from residents at supply stations along the way.

The number of people who have taken up trail running, a relatively new organized sport that also involves hiking, is growing alongside the increasing popularity of mountain climbing and long-distance running.

Trail running has been catching on in the United States and Europe as a way to exercise while exploring nature.

A town or village, even if it has no well-known landmark, can attract runners by arranging an interesting course and playing up the local hospitality.

“Trail running offers a means of rediscovering natural surroundings that do not otherwise draw much attention from people,” says Ikuo Wada, a 45-year-old trail runner and owner of a sporting goods store. “Basically, it is the same as trekking. When you are tired, you slow your pace and enjoy the landscape.”

Well-known trail races include the 160-km Ultra Trail Mount Fuji held at the foot of Japan’s tallest mountain, and the Mount Jimba Trail Race in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The Kanna Mountain Run & Walk, held in the town of Kanna, Gunma Prefecture, in November is another popular race supported by local hospitality. A free all-you-can-eat buffet serving 25 local dishes is held on the eve of the race, and participants can stay in residents’ homes overnight.

Trail races are held throughout Japan, but runners should remember to carry some handy food and other gear as a precaution, and be respectful of mountain climbers, an official with the Japan Trail Running Ability Association said.